Account of the 1st Airborne ceasefire negotiations to secure the evacuation of injured men from Arnhem, 24 September 1944

Colonel Graeme Warrack was promoted to Assistant Director Medical Services of 1st Airborne Division in May 1944, and held this position in September 1944 when he took part in Operation Market Garden. Around 600 medics went to Holland and the time they spent in Holland was probably the airborne medical services finest hour.

The operation had not gone to plan and 1st Airborne medical positions were often exposed in forward positions as the Battle of Arnhem unfolded. Early on the morning of 24 September 1944, there were around 200 casualties in the Divisional HQ RAP. Col Warrack realised not much more could be done for the wounded and in the light of the increasing medical problems he discussed the situation with General Urquhart at the Hartenstein. After their discussions, it was agreed Col Warrack should attempt to make contact with a senior German medical officer with the aim of evacuating the wounded to a safer area in German-held territory. It was deemed impossible to attempt an evacuation across the River Rhine back to Allied positions. General Urquhart stressed that any such approach was being made solely on humanitarian grounds and between the protected personnel of both sides for the benefit of the wounded personnel. Urquhart was also keen to point out that under no circumstances the Germans were to be allowed to think that this approach was a sign of weakness in 1st Airborne Division's resolve to continue to fight. Colonel Warrack was allowed to see if he could arrange a temporary truce that afternoon so the battlefield could be cleared of wounded and both sides could get on with the fight.

At 1000 hrs that morning, Colonel Warrack departed accompanied by Lt-Commander A Wolters (from the Dutch Liaison team) and a local Dutch doctor, Dr Gerrit van Maanen. They left for the Schoonoord, where it was believed they would find a German Army doctor. Lt-Commander Wolters masqueraded under the pseudonym 'Johnson' as it was felt he was running a great risk visiting the German lines. At the Schoonoord they met Major Egon Skalka. Warrack asked to speak with the senior German Medical Officer. To his surprise, Warrack discovered this youngish looking doctor was the senior doctor and they discussed the medical situation, and the possibility of a truce. Both men realised any such agreement would need approval from higher command. Skalka for his part was prepared to agree to the evacuation plan but told Warrack that first they would have to visit his HQ to make sure there were no objections from his General, although he refused to take the Dutch doctor.

Using a captured jeep Maj Skalka drove Warrack and 'Johnson' into Arnhem. The two men were not blindfolded and witnessed many destroyed vehicles and buildings, along with numerous dead bodies by the roadside. Skalka appeared to make no attempt to hide the German strength either.

Eventually they arrived at the HQ of Lt-Colonel Harzer at a school on the Heselbergherweg. Col Warrack introduced Wolters as a Canadian officer named Johnson and discussions began between Warrack, 'Johnson' and the German staff contingent led by Lt-Col Harzer. After a while it was decided the issue must be passed up to the General and several German officers left. While the pair waited they were offered sandwiches and brandy. Declining the drink, the two ate as it was the first food they had eaten in hours. When the German party eventually returned, they were accompanied by General Bittrich, who listened to the plan and agreed it could take place. The General offered a bottle of brandy to Warrack 'for his General' before he withdrew.

At around 1030 hrs, an agreement on a partial truce was reached. The agreement was for a two-hour truce beginning at 1500 hrs. The wounded would leave the defended area by a defined route near De Tafelberg Hotel. Every effort was to be made to cease or slacken fire in the forward areas. Skalka ordered that every available ambulance and jeep was to assemble behind the German lines ready for the 1500 hrs truce. Before leaving Warrack and 'Johnson' were allowed to fill their pockets with captured morphia and medical supplies. 'Johnson' was glad to be getting out of German HQ as one of them, Captain Schwarz had remarked he didn't speak German like an English person.

They were driven back towards Arnhem in a captured jeep flying a Red Cross flag escorted by another German medical officer. This included a brief stop at the St Elizabeth’s Hospital to visit the British wounded and to see conditions inside the hospital, where they met the remaining elements of 16 Para Field Ambulance, all of whom were desperately anxious for news.

Captain Lipmann Kessel reported that heavy fighting had taken place around the hospital area and at one stage there had been a pitched battle in the hospital with Germans firing over the heads of patients in some wards. Since Thursday 21 September however, the area had been quiet and the patients there had a total contrast in conditions compared with the Oosterbeek perimeter. At St Elisabeth’s the casualties were in beds with blankets and sheets and well cared for by Dutch doctors and nurses. Warrack went on a quick tour and saw Brigadier Lathbury who was masquerading as 'Lance Corporal' Lathbury and had been there since the 19 September when he took a bullet in the back in the street fighting pushing through to the bridge. Lipmann Kessel was warned to expect a large number of casualties and the men returned to Oosterbeek, arriving in time for a mortar barrage around De Tafelberg.

Around this time the Germans launched a strong counter-attack on the south-eastern sector of the perimeter and had gained possession of some houses around De Tafelberg Hotel. They now attempted to launch an attack through to the Hartenstein. The 21st Independent Parachute Company was doing it best to keep the Germans at bay and the Germans were refused entry to hospital buildings in search of firing positions, but they did fire from within the hospital grounds. This action hampered the defensive efforts of the 21st Independent Parachute Company as they could not fire back for fear of hitting the wounded and RAMC personnel.

Then suddenly, remarkably, at 1500 hrs the firing suddenly diminished and then stopped altogether. A convoy of ambulances and jeeps flying Red Cross flags arrived in the 'MDS crossroads' area (where Medical hospitals had been established in Oosterbeek) and the locating of casualties  from both sides commenced.

About 250 walking wounded were led off to the St Elisabeth’s Hospital. Additionally jeeps started to go direct from the RAP's to St Elisabeth’s Hospital. However the German reaction to jeeps arriving flying the Red Cross flag was to take the driver prisoner, but jeeps with Red Crosses painted on them were allowed to return.

Despite this ceasefire, when the Battle recommenced over the next few days until the night of 25-26 September the wounded continued to move into the medical facilities. With such high numbers and often mortal wounds, evacuation was not an option and much of the medical staff stayed to await the arrival of the Germans after the 1st Airborne withdrawal on the morning of 26th September.

Col Warrack later ran the 'Airborne Hospital' established at Apeldoorn in a former Dutch Army barracks, where many of the men evacuated in the earlier truce were being looked after. Over several days Warrack and other members of the RAMC worked tirelessly to provide treatment for the wounded and undoubtedly help save numerous lives. Warrack escaped after first hiding in a small 'hidey-hole' in the Hospital building and eventually returned to Allied lines in February 1945. He was later awarded the DSO for his actions at Arnhem.

Further reading:

Niall Cherry, Red Berets and Red Crosses (1999), Robert Sigmond Ltd Graeme Warrack, Travel by Dark: After Arnhem (1963), Harvill Press: London.
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